Polish Theatre in the UK: a History of Migration?
Might we consider the influence of Polish theatre in the UK in terms of migration? After all, this is the most urgent topic in Europe now, even though in Britain we appear to be watching these horrific events from the sidelines. In the summer the port of Dover was disrupted not just by French strikes but also by migrants illegally trying to enter the UK. This led to 30 mile-long tailbacks of lorries in Kent, my county, (called Operation Stack) over weeks.
So we began to feel some impact from this crisis quite directly, though of course our inconvenience was nothing compared to what many of the migrants have themselves been through. Clearly these were not Poles, though many Polish lorries were caught in queues, but mainly those fleeing from Africa and the Middle East, especially Syria. As we all know, the Poles came earlier. But what they fled and their motivation to do so was perhaps not so different from what the refugees are facing today.
In fact the Poles came to Britain much earlier, with the first notable wave in more recent times during and just after World War Two. To help accommodate them, a total of 45 resettlement camps were set up across Great Britain, including one in Ilford Park in Devon, which I visited in 1992, as I will explain later. Some short documentary film extracts show the life there. This is the last institution to be run by the Ministry of Defense and is now solely an old people’s home. I wish our government were as hospitable today.
We have, however, always been extremely receptive and hospitable to Polish theatre in the UK. Migration is a crude analogy for understanding the influence of Polish theatre in Britain but we might be able to draw out some helpful parallels. People travel with stories, songs, gestures and through movement, by taking action; the core ingredients of theatre. But theatre travels safely, usually; and theatre is looking for engagement rather than fleeing from it.
So can migration be more than just a metaphor to examine how Polish theatre has travelled to and subsequently affected theatre academics and artists in the UK? Of course Polish theatre is a very big thing. Clearly those Poles now working and living in the UK do not represent Poland as a whole; nor can they be considered a representative sample of the culture from which they have come. But their influence is significant: the number of people born in Poland living in England and Wales increased almost ten-fold (and especially after EU accession in May 2004) – from 58,000 to 579,000 between 2001 and 2011. And by 2013, 679,000 people from Poland had moved to Britain. (Daily Mail) Hearing such numbers gives us a sense of scale. However, we need to balance this overview with small details, with stories, with certain moments in time. As well as looking at the bigger picture, to some extent metaphorically, I will also follow some individual paths, pragmatically. My own path is one of these.
We can quickly see how the macro and micro scales differ so radically. The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford in 2013, from whom these statistics come, analysed the words used in British national newspapers associated with immigration and migrants. The most common term they identified was ‘illegal’. Yet if I talk to people I know or meet about what Poles have contributed to the UK, it is nearly always characterized by four factors: they are hardworking, often very useful (usually as plumbers), polite and cheap to employ. We could question each of these received notions, but in general the reception of Polish migrants in the UK has been very positive.
Can we say the same of the reception of Polish theatre post-WW2? Has it worked hard? What kind of ‘plumbing’ has it done? Has it been polite or controversial? And is it cheap or always just poor? As my two main examples will be Grotowski and Kantor, ‘poor’ is an appropriate word; and yes, the idea of poor theatre, although defined in varied ways, is something Polish theatre has helped us to understand. More seriously, though, how do we begin to chart this influence in a way that is less generalized and dependent on such stereotypes or clichés?
This is a complex task. In Russia, on the 100th anniversary of MXHAT, they used the image of a tree (see image) to symbolize the Russian lineage of theatre practice from Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko to today. Everything grows from these roots, breathes the same oxygen and flowers from the same stem. The fruits are multiple but the history is shared. It’s a wonderful but perhaps not very realistic metaphor.
I led a funded project from 2006-9, called the British Grotowski project. My PhD student’s task was to examine Grotowski’s influence on British theatre and physical theatre in particular. We tried to be systematic about this influence and developed this table.
For all its roughness, at least it shows us the complexity of influence, how it manifests through individuals directly (transmission in the case of Thomas Richards), through books (remember that Zbigniew Osiński called Towards a Poor Theatre a ‘bible’ for alternative theatre groups), through workshops, performances, and, more indirectly, even through myths. And Polish theatre has created a lot of these! What is clear is that Polish theatre has often developed a very strong and often long-term process, in the mainstream as well as in the avant-garde. I always use the example of Gardzienice Theatre Association as the epitome of this: a theatre company that has made 10 performances in nearly 40 years: one every 4 years. And those in the early days, before their marathons, were often 20-40 minutes long. If we measure theatre activity just by outputs, by what we see as spectators, we miss a great deal.
So the impact of Polish theatre on British theatre (and by this I mean its study as well as its practice) has undeniably been multiple and strongly felt, just as has the influence of Polish migrants. One observation is that it has been based on practice as much as, or perhaps even more than plays – approaches to acting, mise en scène, the idea of a theatre laboratory, theatre and anthropology, notions of the director as auteur. Another is that it has also been most keenly felt since the 1970s and remained fairly consistent until today. Of course there were examples before this, and I will end my talk with an intriguing and much earlier example. But the Polish theatre of the 1970s is what made the most notable difference to British theatre.
Tadeusz Kantor is a prime example of this influence. His earliest appearances were at the Edinburgh Festival. In some ways Edinburgh is an anomaly – just as we can’t determine that those Poles living in Britain somehow represent the whole of Poland and its culture, Edinburgh is a bubble, a microcosm that erupts momentarily every summer, and whose influence is extremely localized. The brevity of Edinburgh’s impact is changing though, as many companies now use Edinburgh as a springboard to then tour into the UK. Festival-linked shows reappear in England, sometimes weeks later, though still trading with the Festival label. Edinburgh allowed Kantor to have a very strong foothold in the whole of the UK.
British scholar Noel Witts locates Kantor’s influence as follows:
For audiences in the UK, brought up on the ‘well-made’ play, this work was a revelation, in that it spoke across boundaries and made connections with other theatre-makers for whom the visual had been essential – Meyerhold, Schlemmer, Edward Gordon Craig.
Although mainstream UK theatre still regarded (and maybe still does?) Kantor’s work as outside its remit, there was a steady drip of Kantor being fed into UK universities by those dedicated theatre academics and practitioners who saw that here was a way of proving that theatre- making and visual arts had links, even roots, which needed to be explored if we were to continue to encourage the next generation of theatre- makers.
Noel Witts in Kantor was Here: Tadeusz Kantor in Great Britain, Black Dog Publishing, London, 2011, pp.159-160.
The influence on universities and academics continues. In September 2015 I organised a symposium in part to investigate how alive Kantor’s influence still is: Kantorbury, Kantorbury. We recreated with artist Goshka Macuga her Letter, (see Image) ‘posted’ from 40 miles away to our conference and delivered by seven very wet and bedraggled postmen and women. We wanted to welcome visual artists to our conference as much as theatre people, but The Letter was sadly as far as this crossover went; though its presence was significant and its procession caused a stir along its journey and much excitement at our symposium. It became apparent that the circle of theatre people still engaging with Kantor’s work in the UK is quite small, perhaps in part because many of his ideas have become so assimilated and with that his foundational influence has rather been overlooked or forgotten.
One thing that comes across very clearly in Witts’ quotations is the director’s relationship to the text, acknowledging a freedom which some have more critically described as the dominance of the auteur. It’s risky to entrench these binaries (British director as benign or faithful interpreter of a text and the auteur as one who disregards the text wantonly). But Polish theatre’s influence in the UK has allowed the stranglehold of a very text-dominated practice to become looser. This dominance perhaps stems back to and is caused in part by the richness of Shakespeare’s plays. In addition, most of our theatre directors, like Peter Brook, were Oxbridge educated. Drama isn’t studied at either Oxford or Cambridge Universities as a single honours Bachelors degree, so most British directors historically have graduated in English literature. In April 2009, Michael Billington, one of the most established and well-known theatre critics who writes for The Guardian, wrote a blog cautioning against idolizing the auteur. Fair enough. But he also was concerned that ‘the director takes precedence over the writer’. Many theatre people, including myself, have little problem with this. There is a new phenomenon called a ‘theatre-maker’ that is shaking up the British theatre establishment and has been doing so for some years. This has led to much wider understandings of what the director might do with a text. The fact that this way of thinking and operating has gained ground is in a large part thanks to Polish theatre. Of the three director examples he refers to in his blog as possible auteurs, Simon McBurney (Complicite), Katie Mitchell, and Emma Rice, two of them have been heavily influenced by Polish theatre and Gardzienice in particular.
I put myself in this same lineage of theatre-makers. My own connection to Polish theatre was consolidated at the Edinburgh Festival in 1985. The Festival showed two faces of Polish theatre, official and unofficial, just as it still today has its official programme and the fringe. I saw Poznań’s Teatr Nowy with Janusz Wiśniewski’s The End of Europe, which as far as I could tell was a pale imitation of Kantor; but also performing were Theatre of the 8th day, half of whose actors had been unable to leave Poland, their passports confiscated. At that time I was studying drama at university which involved a lot of practice led by two teachers who had been to Poland in the 1970s, seen Apocalypsis cum Figuris and participated in paratheatre. I wrote my dissertation on Witkiewicz. Just after my studies finished, Gardzienice came to the UK for the first time in 1988, which was to herald their long and rich association with British theatre over the next 15 or so years.
In 1989 I began my PhD on Gardzienice and so began a connection with Katie Mitchell, Emma Rice, Alison Hodge and many others. Katie Mitchell and I worked together on several productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal National Theatre and on the fringe. My role was as Movement Director, trying to get British actors to work more physically and to explore text and character in different ways. Emma Rice and I worked with Theatre Alibi and she then went to Poland to train and perform with Gardzienice as part of this. This made a huge impact on her just as it did on Katie and myself. Emma Rice:
I was working a lot with Katie Mitchell around that time because Katie had been working with Gardzienice as well and at that time, anybody who’d been out there was drawn to each other. We all had an unspoken bond – it wasn’t necessarily even a friendly one, but we’d all had this very extreme experience. It was like a survivors’ group.
The strength of her encounter is very evident in the emotive language she uses, verging on an addiction!
Emma and I also went on to collaborate together on a production called The Pales in 1992 where we spent two weeks researching and living together in the Kurpie forest. For our research in the UK, we visited Ilford House to meet British Poles, hearing their stories and learning their songs. After her experience in Gardzienice and with Alibi, Rice worked as actor then director with Kneehigh Theatre in Cornwall. Most recently she has been appointed artistic director of The Globe. She is now at the heart of the British theatre establishment. When we visited the Polish community in this tiny village in remote Devon in 1992 there was a ‘Polski sklep’ - it was bizarre to see kielbasa and kròwki there. Now there are ‘Polski skleps’ in almost every town in the UK. Similarly, Polish theatre and its influence is much more widely recognized, though not on every street corner.
I would like to give a further, slighter but perhaps no less significant example. Tom Morris, who now leads Bristol Old Vic, conceived and directed the world-renowned War Horse at the National Theatre. Tom saw Studium Teatralne’s Miasto when I bought the company to British universities for a small UK tour in 1998. He commented in an enthusiastic letter to me after the event how inspiring and different this kind of work was. In these two examples we can see how the influence of Polish theatre, transmitted in very different ways, has penetrated right into the heart and historical homeland of British theatre. The Poles are once again ‘doing the plumbing’, only this time on an Elizabethan reconstruction in London and in the beautiful mid-18th century Bristol theatre – Bristol Old Vic.
Just as earlier we saw Noel Witts’ views on Kantor, so can we see that Polish theatre has allowed another perspective that is quite extreme in two ways, at least according to British sensibilities: in terms of artistic freedom and responses to a playtext and in pushing and testing notions of what theatre can be. This extremity has most noticeably informed the development of physical theatre in the UK, though this is based as much on myths as well as facts. An example of this mythologizing is Lloyd Newson talking about Grotowski’s influence:
Mary Luckhurst: How would you describe your work?
Lloyd Newson: DV8 was the first company in Britain to call their work physical theatre, which is a Grotowski-based term. Now it's a term I'm hesitant to use because of its current overuse in describing almost anything that isn't traditional dance or theatre.
‘Ten Years on The Edge’ based on an interview with Mary Luckhurst (unpublished), Bound To Please programme, DV8 Physical Theatre, 1997 (www.dv8.co.uk)
A key text on physical theatre makes a similar false assumption, perhaps based on and perpetuating Newson’s view:
The term ‘physical theatre’ first came to public attention through the emergence of DV8 Physical theatre in 1986 […] the term is invoked as a shorthand to identify a range of practices associated with Grotowski’s laboratory.
Simon Murray and John Keefe, Physical Theatres: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, London 2007, p.14
An irony in Newson’s claim is that Grotowski had categorically distanced himself from what he perceived as physical theatre (though he was not talking about this particularly British form as such):
Everyone said I was making physical theatre, when in reality I was working on the relationship between action and text. But they said this was physical theatre. This wasn’t really dangerous, because we were working on text. However, for my so-called disciples it was a disaster, because really they worked on physical theatre.
Jerzy Grotowski in ‘A Dialogue between Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski’ in Peter Brook’s With Jerzy Grotowski: Theatre is Just a Form, eds. Grzegorz Ziółkowski and Georges Banu with Paul Allain, Grotowski Institute, Wrocław 2009, p.84.
This contradiction aside, there were key events in the migration of Polish practices that might justify this perception. One of these was Cieślak and Grotowski’s workshop during rehearsals of Brook’s US in 1965 with the Royal Shakespeare Company. My PhD student on the British Grotowski project Pablo Pakula interviewed several of the actors from this production to discuss the effect this workshop had on them. Barry Stanton, a very established British actor, described it thus:
It was a shock for the English actors. We were told to strip off to our bare feet. […] That was the big shock …and then it all started. A day of total physical work. About fear really, about fear and trust. Doing lots of physical balances, and jumping over things, and running out and going over big jumps and things like that.
Many years later, Gardzienice’s workshop encounters with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1992 and 1995 caused similar waves and repercussions. These events were once again questioning and testing through practice established values at the heart of the British theatre mainstream.
It is interesting but also important to recall how workshop encounters like these can influence and shake up theatre practice as much as the witnessing of a performance, as in the example of Tom Morris. Theatre practice is very concrete. Migration is then perhaps a useful analogy because it reminds us that it is what people do in their actual daily encounters that is remembered and not just media-generated myths that deal with grand numbers, abstracted figures. Performances as public events are only a small part of how influence spreads, even if they also grab the headlines. Poles are valued in the UK because they are hard working and efficient. In some ways this hard work, the effort of Polish theatre, has been what has excited many in the UK. Its physicality and long-term exploration of acting and directing processes has shaped physical theatre and more, even if the myth of how this has happened needs separating from the reality.
There are many other strands of Polish theatre’s influence not touched on here. The productions of Krystian Lupa, Krzysztof Warlikowski and Grzegorz Jarzyna are just three examples of directors whose work has been shown at important venues like the Barbican in London and in Edinburgh but whose theatre is still too little known. Here our British reverence for text-based work which is more faithful to the text, whatever that might mean, has perhaps blocked their wider enjoyment. But Kantor and Grotowski’s work has penetrated deep into theatre practice and its study. Perhaps their playing with texts was considered so experimental that issues of faithfulness were not even in the frame.
Now, as everywhere, the movement of migrants can turn into the movement of global commodities, and theatre has become increasingly an internationalized brand. If you ask most British people what Polish theatre is today, they would possibly say Song of the Goat. For me this company too much represents what I call the ‘commercial experimental’, an imitation of a truly exploratory process of theatre-making, that for me has been one defining hallmark of Polish theatre. The fact that their publicity speaks about the Bral method, when Grotowski so clearly killed off any credibility in such language, is just one indicator of the dominance of market-driven thinking.
It is much harder today to talk in binaries or to define a specific Polish or even British theatre, even if that has somehow been my intent here. Goshka Macuga is an interesting example, for she moved to the UK in 1989, yet her dialogue with Polish artists remains strong and vivid. Bral has now set up his Bral School of Acting in London with plans for New York. There are many examples of settled and deep migration and its impact changing national boundaries and definitions. As theatre becomes more and more global, I hope that the effort and hard work of Polish theatre, a particular way of doing things rather than speaking words, remains and does not become diluted. For this has been at the centre of my own and a wider British fascination for decades now. Without resorting to sentimental nostalgia or embracing closed self-referentiality, we should be attentive that the cultural specificities of theatre do not become watered down in a generalized global mash up of performance, driven by commercial constraints.
I would like to end by recalling this performance of a play Zorinski: Poland Preserved by Thomas Morton from 1796. I saw the poster (see Image) exhibited in the Tudor House in Southampton, a city now full of Poles, which is possibly where the play was presented. I have been able to find out almost nothing about the play or the production. Nevertheless, following its lead from 219 years ago, just after the Third Partition, I hope that Polish theatre can be ‘preserved’ and continue to shape and excite British theatre-makers and students for another 250 years.
A version of this text was originally delivered to the national conference of Polish theatre researchers in Bydgoszcz on 28 September 2015.
Professor Paul Allain